I have been trying to clear my mind of obstacles so I can think without the impediments created by attachment to things as they appear to be. If that sounds a little abstract, imagine a farmer prying stumps or boulders out of a field before plowing and sowing; or a painter smoothing and priming a used canvas before laying down new color.
You can try to paint over bumps or plow around them, but everything you create will be imprinted, will be shaped, by what you hope to avoid. I find it a great struggle to try and dismantle conventional ways of thinking with roots as deep in my mind as an ancient tree stump’s in a long-fallow field. But I have a strong hope and faith it will be worth the effort.
That is why I am so inspired when I come across someone who seems to have done just that. I was delighted today to make the acquaintance (via a podcast of NPR’s “Fresh Air”) of Paul Polak, founder of IDE (International Development Enterprises) and author of a new book, Out of Poverty.
Polak, now in his mid-70s, has had tremendous success helping subsistence farmers raise themselves from poverty through their own knowledge and own efforts. He started out as a psychiatrist:
Many people ask me to explain why I stopped being a psychiatrist and changed over to working on poverty. But I don’t really see it as a change. Because poverty plays such a critical role in the incidence and prevalence of all forms of illness, I have always believed that learning about poverty and what can be done to end it should be a basic science in every medical school and psychiatric-training curriculum. Thirty years ago, I became convinced that the most significant positive impact I could have on world health was to work on finding ways to end poverty.
…[I]n my work as a psychiatrist, I discovered early on that I could learn more about the seriously mentally ill patients I was trying to help if I talked to them in their homes or their places of work, and if I listened to what they had to say.
When he began to apply these principles to alleviating poverty, he learned
about poverty by interviewing people all over the world who survive on less than a dollar a day, by walking with them through their one-acre farms and enjoying a cup of tea with their families, sitting on a stool in front of their thatched-roof mud-and-wattle homes. These people told me they were poor because they couldn’t earn enough from their one-acre farms. They said they needed access to affordable irrigation before they could grow the high-value crops that would increase their income, and sometimes they needed help to get these crops to markets where they could sell them at a profit. So in 1981 I started an organization called International Development Enterprises (IDE) that helped them meet these needs. We designed a range of affordable irrigation tools such as treadle pumps, and mass-marketed them to small-acreage farmers through the local private sector. We helped farmers pick four or five high-value fruits and vegetables they could grow well in their area, set up private-sector supply chains that sold them the seeds and fertilizer they needed to grow these crops, and helped them sell what they grew at a profit in the marketplace. This effectively ended the poverty of 17 million dollar-a-day rural people.
It has taken me twenty-five years to come to these ridiculously simple and obvious conclusions.
Polak attributes his ability to perceive the obvious to his father, who escaped Hitler, abandoning his home in Czechoslovakia over the objections of friends and relatives who ignored his pleas to escape while there was still time. Here’s how Polak says these unfortunate friends replied: “But what would we do with the furniture?”
One of the most interesting things about Polak’s analysis is his demonstration of how the burdensome “furniture” of so much conventional development thinking has actually exacerbated poverty, rather than reducing it, incapacitating subsistence farmers, rather than helping them use what they know in their own interests.
Polak’s 12 steps toward practical solutions include: “Think like a child,” “See and do the obvious” and “Stay positive: don’t be distracted by what other people think.” I am trying to apply them to the personal and social questions that interest me most. But first, I have to be willing to let go of the furniture. In fact, I’m desperate to be rid of it. It’s just that some of it is sticky.
So many important thinkers have struggled with this daunting challenge. The French philosopher and sociologist Lucien Goldmann greatly inspired me with his notion of “potential consciousness,” a supremely handy instrument of political analysis, for instance. Simply stated, one’s potential consciousness—ability to perceive, understand and accept—is limited by several factors. One factor is simply the scope of prior experience: if I have never seen an airplane, when one flies into view I may refuse to believe it is a machine operated by humans. My potential consciousness may not stretch beyond perceiving it as a new kind of bird or an otherworldly visitation. Another factor is prior belief: if I believe that the sole and ultimate truth has been whispered in the ear of one supreme spiritual leader, it may be impossible for me to grasp that other spiritual traditions are legitimate, are even equal in value.
The remarkable teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it a little differently: “The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for authentic awareness…”
You know how it can happen that when you focus on something, life begins to offer you more and more opportunities to do just that? I’m excited to think that more teachers like Paul Polak will be put in my path, helping me learn to see beyond the tree stumps, boulders and furniture, helping me see what is truly present.